Friday, October 3, 2014

The Reader’s Obsession with Dystopian Novels

Books I've just read vs. Books I'm going to finish this month

While many genres have blown up in recent years in mainstream fiction (I’m looking at you, zombies and vampires), the dystopian novel offers something much more tangible than fantasy or science fiction: possibility. Could we, as the human race, one day live in spaceships or on the moon? We will probably need to if we destroy Earth any faster. Could vampires, dragons, or hobbits exist in the future since they’ve survived hundreds of years worth of stories? Possibly, although with the spread of Ebola and bath salts zombies may come to life soonest. Our hopes and fears aside, dystopian novels place the reader in a society that resembles the modern world but without free will, decision-making, or emotional connections. If all it takes is a drastic war or one evil man getting into power to create a dystopian novel, then Hitler may be the greatest source of motivation readers need to understand why living within a dystopian novel is something that is not only a possibility, but something humans have already lived through.

What is a Dystopia?

A dystopia has taken on many forms throughout the decades of authors and perspectives, but at its core, a dystopia is “an imaginary place where people are unhappy and usually afraid because they are not treated fairly” or more commonly the anti-utopia (Merriam-Webster).

However, this definition only refers to novels, hence why “imaginary” is included. If a reader looks at the United States, many citizens are unhappy with the current president or reigning political party. The government does not hold complete control, because legal, of-age citizens are allowed to vote on members of the government. Due to actions in the past, most recently and largely the successful election of President George W. Bush in 2000 despite his popularity election loss, many individuals believe that, even if they vote, the person who should win has a chance of losing because of underhandedness. This sort of thinking, while it has its roots in truth, merges with conspiracy and transforms most people into citizens who don’t vote. Because so many believe that their vote won’t matter, only ~50% of the population vote in each presidential election, and even fewer for local elections (Bipartisan Research Center). As for being afraid, the conspiracy theories lead to hesitance among the citizens for action. If all it took for the people to stop war, hunger, and poverty were peace treaties that ended peacefully, then the world would not suffer from those problems now. As a whole, the American society does not take a stand against brash actions of its government because of fear or the acceptance of unhappiness.

Does this constitute a dystopia? The fo
unders of the United States created a government that would be more willing to listen to the people, but it has since declined in effectiveness and many Americans go without food, shelter, or sufficient clothing on a daily basis. Rather than go into an argument about whether these individuals should try to find a job or whether the government should take a stronger stand in creating jobs, the majority of Americans are dissatisfied with some aspect of their life that they believe the government could take a larger part in. While the United States was not created in the hopes of becoming an utopia for its people (focusing instead on religious and other freedoms), can and does the current American society resemble a dystopia? The answer is yes, and that is based on the definition provided by Merriam-Webster, ignoring the “imaginary” requirement. The American public is unhappy but refuses to take a stand because of the fear for their lives, their families, or their livelihood, and for that reason dystopian novels have changed from a way to escape problems into a mirror of our current problems, with just a little more action and romance.

Tangible Experiences

Dystopian novels draw readers to them because of their resemblance to the modern world, largely through the setting, conflict, and characters.

If the current American society is a dystopia, then the reader can simply look to novels like The Hunger Games or Divergent to understand possible future timelines that the country will follow. In Divergent, the protagonist Tris lives in a faction-based society where she is allowed to make one choice to determine the kind of person, career, and life she wants to be and have at the ripe age of sixteen. If she chooses to change her mind later, she succumbs to the factionless society, a group of citizens who represent the homeless population. While the American society has a larger safety net for those individuals who change careers, cities, or even personalities throughout their lives as opposed to in the novel, there is still a large homeless population and are many individuals who hate their job or regret their education or training choices. Tris is unhappy because she must say goodbye to her family and leave behind her home and history for a future she has to trust in because she can’t change it. How many college graduates regret their major because the job market is poor? How many would admit that they wish they could back and change their entire college experience for something else? Often times, too many.

The pressure from paying bills and keeping a roof and food are challenges that many young adults are not prepared to face physically, mentally, and sometimes emotionally. There are fewer and fewer courses taught in high school about money and budgeting, and some parents have left these ideas behind. After reading about Tris and how she fears leaving behind the comforts of family more than she fears the future, readers cling to Tris as a character and confidant, someone who understands exactly why the real world is so terrifying and enticing at the same time. The government controls these characters’ lives, and with the democracy looming over the American propaganda, readers relate to this faction-based society even though it is one that has not yet been tested in the country. The trio of dark setting, conflict, and characters brings to life the desires people have, either as members of the working class to see a fulfilled retirement or young adults hoping to make the water bill, and the bravery they wished they had to not only think but step outside the box and fight for a safer, more productive way to live life smiling.

Those who are now young adults grew up with the Iraqi War, those who are parents or guardians identified with Desert Storm and similar conflicts, and children of the next generation will learn to hear terms like ISIS and drug lords as commonplace and normal as firefighters or Mars. If children can hear about modern war and not flinch, the world is definitely on the verge of a dystopia only written about in fiction, and it is for this reason why readers cling to dystopian novels as though they were a glimpse into the future rather than a way to escape the world’s problems.

Often, readers delve into books to temporarily forget their lives and slip into a safer environment if only because the pain is not real, but dystopian stories offer an escape into a world that is parallel to their own and only a little more damaged than today’s society. In the dystopian novel, the elements of fiction more closely resemble the elements of life, and the reader sees a mirror image of the problems in the news. We cheer Tris on, but is it because she is a strong, reliable character or because we believe that her future is ours and that if we must take her place in a revolution we need to know that a victory is just as possible as it is probable?


  1. I think another powerful factor in reading dystopian novels is that they can be empowering. If Tris can do the things that she can do in such a miserable place, can't we do even greater things in our own world that is not as harsh? I loved Divergent and am constantly, although unintentionally, comparing myself to Tris. I think dystopian novels have a greater potential than any other genre to show both the best and worst sides of humanity because it can be aligned more to the modern and everyday world. Like you've mentioned, that's what makes it so powerful.

  2. I completely agree with you, Eric. Tris may have been much braver in dangerous situations than most of us would hope to be, but the fact that she makes large errors and accepts them is what makes her such a strong, reliable, and trustworthy character.

    Reading about Harry Potter and his courageous actions is inspiring, but empowering would be too strong a word because we cannot comprehend his lifestyle or power, in terms of being a wizard that is. Tris is someone who sees the corruption in her government and wants to change it, something that needs to happen in the majority of countries around the world. Unfortunately, I think one of the reasons we refuse to take action is because while her world is much harsher than ours, why does that mean our government is also less severe? Often times, the situation in our society is not as severe but the government would still go to great leaps to ensure that they stay in control of the masses with propaganda and hidden history. Tris underwent a lot of pain, loss, and struggle in her fight to overcome them, and her government was significantly smaller than ours.

    While dystopian novels empower the reader, I think they also frighten the reader as well, and both these actions cancel each other out to keep our society neutral in terms of justice. Thank you for your comment, too!